‘Proposal to reintroduce the cheetah to India is an exciting opportunity’

There will be ecological and economic benefits for India as long as the focus is on the naturally occurring Asiatic subspecies rather than the African one, argues a leading cheetah expert from Panthera

Nitin Sreedhar
Updated4 Apr 2020
A cheetah at the Mashatu game reserve in Botswana
A cheetah at the Mashatu game reserve in Botswana(Photo: Getty Images)

In January, the Supreme Court allowed the Union government to bring the African cheetah to India in an effort to reintroduce the species in the country. The Asiatic cheetah, which once roamed India’s vast forests and grasslands, was declared extinct here in 1952, after decades of human intervention, hunting and habitat degradation. The IUCN Red List classifies the species as critically endangered globally.

Kim Young-Overton.

Kim Young-Overton, KAZA programme director for Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization, believes that if any programme were to responsibly and successfully reintroduce the Asiatic, not African, cheetah, “it would be remarkable for this cheetah subspecies”. KAZA stands for the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area in southern Africa, which hosts roughly 20% of the global cheetah population.

The Asiatic cheetah is now found only in Iran, so, says Young-Overton, this would create a second population, thereby “greatly decreasing the probability of extinction of the subspecies”. Currently, she adds, Panthera’s on-the-ground cheetah conservation efforts focus on priority landscapes in Africa.

In an email interview, she explains why India’s plan requires considerable ecological, political, social and financial planning. Edited excerpts:

How complicated is it to introduce a big cat species to a completely new region? Also, how ethical is it?

The proposal to reintroduce the cheetah to India is an exciting opportunity to reinstate an important component of India’s savanna and woodland biodiversity. The Asiatic cheetah was an iconic cheetah subspecies that is now critically endangered and only occurs in a single population of less than 50 individuals in Iran. Reintroduction of this subspecies would not only be ecologically valuable for India’s biodiversity but also be a fundamental gain for the long-term persistence of this critically endangered subspecies.

However, to maximize the opportunity to create a viable and self-sustaining population and return the greatest conservation gains, a rigorous set of assessments— ecological, social, socioeconomic, epidemiological (veterinary and disease), animal welfare, financial and political impact, and feasibility of success—must be made.

For example, in the case of predators, human-wildlife conflict challenges at the receiving site need to be addressed before release. Financial resources to manage and protect the new species must be ensured. Also, source site population dynamics need to be considered to ensure that removing the required number of individuals to create a new breeding population doesn’t impact the viability of the original population.

To ensure impacts, costs and benefits are adequately addressed and that the translocation of the animals is ethical and warranted, several decision-making frameworks have been developed by authorities and organizations.

In the case of the proposal at hand, the Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) is a subspecies that naturally occurred in India. If the Asiatic cheetah is the source population and all prerequisites are met, the reintroduction would be an ecologically exciting prospect. However, if another subspecies of cheetah is used (Acinonyx jubatus jubatus from Namibia, as currently planned in India), then the proposal would be less desirable. It would neither contribute to the maintenance of genetic diversity nor contribute to the conservation of the Asiatic subspecies.

This is important given that the genetic diversity of cheetah is low relative to other species. Maintaining genetic diversity ensures species resilience in times of disease and change. The introduction of the southern African subspecies instead of the return of the Asiatic cheetah to India may squander or even compromise this opportunity.

Furthermore, India’s desire to restore grasslands and savannas using the cheetah as a flagship (species) would be better served by the Asiatic cheetah. The Indian people could rightly be very proud to have their Asiatic cheetah back. This would also have potential tourism value as it may be the only place that tourists can have access to the subspecies (apart from Iran). In my opinion, India would have less reason to herald the reintroduction of the cheetah to India as opposed to the return of the Asiatic cheetah.

What are some of the prerequisites for such a translocation plan?

The most fundamental requirement is that the factors that drove the species to extinction should be corrected, so that the species can be expected to thrive in the area.

Cheetahs require a suitably large habitat to maintain a viable population, sufficient numbers of suitable prey, and low levels of killing of cheetah by humans and other animals. Achieving these conditions requires ecological, social and political preparation, careful site selection and resources to protect the translocated animals and monitor their movement. In terms of site preparation, there must be considerable community engagement and public education about the value of the species to the system, and to the people. People need to understand why the animals should not be killed when they come into human contact. Landscape plans are needed to ensure long-term habitat protection from development and other human disturbance. In India, this may also include a habitat conservation and management plan, including policy specifically for savanna and woodland habitats as these systems are under pressure there.

How adaptable is the African cheetah? Are there any successful examples of such a translocation plan for big cat species?

Cheetahs are fairly adaptable and present across varied climate and habitats in their extant range. However, they require specialized prey and do not tolerate landscapes that have medium to high human populations.

In terms of successful translocations, they may struggle to establish where there are high numbers of other predators, and in open unfenced landscapes. Even though cheetahs have been successfully reintroduced into small fenced reserves in South Africa and elsewhere, to our knowledge there have been no successful reintroductions to unfenced wild landscapes. Indeed, even some translocations of the southern Africa subspecies to other open protected areas even within southern Africa have failed, e.g. to the Lower Zambezi National Park.

The drawback for the translocation of the southern African subspecies to India is not related to its ability to adapt but, rather, the ecological and ethical considerations, as well as the lost opportunity to reintroduce the Asiatic subspecies.

Conservationists say India should concentrate on reviving native species on the brink of extinction, like the Asiatic lion and Great Indian Bustard, rather than reintroducing a species that went extinct decades ago.

This argument has some merit but also assumes that the funds for the cheetah reintroduction could be used for other conservation efforts. Often, the drivers for a reintroduction are less about ecological outcome than the desire to have a charismatic species as a national identity or tourism drawcard. The reintroduction of the Asiatic cheetah into India could help bring this subspecies back from extinction and also assist with bringing funds to the site. As mentioned earlier, this may not be the case for the southern African subspecies from Namibia.

With climate change putting additional stress on habitats, is it wise to consider introduction at all?

Cheetahs have wide climatic tolerances but the impacts of climate change and increasing human populations are placing pressure on cheetah habitats. Introductions, reintroductions and translocations of cheetah among populations are conservation tools that have some merit in maintaining range and providing resilience in regional and global populations but on a case-by-case basis, with proper assessment. Conservation in situ and protection of existing populations is probably more effective. However, in the case of the Asiatic cheetah, it is essential to increase the persistence of the subspecies by extending its range beyond one population. This will require translocation.

An important planning step would be to model predicted impacts of climate change and associated changes in human activity on cheetah habitats in India.

What is the Asiatic cheetah’s conservation status in Iran? How different is it from the African subspecies?

The Asiatic cheetah is arguably the most distinct of the cheetah subspecies. It is lighter in weight, has a smaller head and shorter legs. It faces many threats, including persecution killing, habitat loss (prey depletion), targeted poaching for skins, body parts and live trade, and even road-kill.

Tiger numbers in India have improved over the last few years, almost close to 3,000. Do you think wildlife conservationists and government authorities can take encouragement from this as they attempt something similar for the cheetah?

India’s commitment to tigers bodes well for conserving cheetahs if introduced. However, unlike the tiger that lives in forested habitats, cheetahs need savanna grasslands and open woodlands. These habitats are some of the most threatened in India. Often classified as wastelands, some of the best habitats have been converted into plantations of exotic tree species (to either increase forest cover or for fuelwood security), mining or other land uses, including the Green India Mission (one of the eight Missions under the National Action Plan on Climate Change) solar power projects. So, if the proposal is to go beyond an “experimental” introduction (as stated in the court order) to bringing back an iconic species that fills an ecological niche, the plan must begin by designing and implementing a savanna grassland conservation and management policy.

Indian savanna grassland habitats have other iconic species like the Great Indian Bustard and wolf. Policies to conserve these habitats need to be formulated to save these species. If the cheetah can be the species that prompts this change, it will certainly be welcomed.

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